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Oberlin
Unmasked

by Delazon Smith, a Student

Written 1837
Condensed 2019

~

Preface by TBT.

Conduct and Character
of the Church.

Introduction.

Conduct and Character, Concluded.

Course of Study,
and Manual Labor.

Abolition.

Board and
Mode of Living.

Intolerance or
Suppression of Opinion.

Connexion of Male and
Female Departments.

Concluding Remarks.

 

Disclaimer, by an Alumnus:  After its rather rocky first decade, Oberlin College has become much more worthy of our support...

When it was founded in 1833, my alma mater advertised that “the Collegiate Department will afford as extensive and thorough a course of instruction as other colleges, varying from some by substituting Hebrew and Sacred classics for the most objectionable pagan authors.”

The official seal depicts Tappan Hall, with its four classrooms and ninety student chambers, surrounded by majestic elm trees — and a wheat field.

Students learned in the Hall, but they also labored in the field to defray the cost of their tuition.

One such “Manual Labor System” had been established in 1827 by Charles Finney's former pastor, Rev. George Washington Gale. Gale's new Oneida Academy along the Erie Canal prepared students for advanced theological training, but it also required them to perform manual labor.  This made it affordable to more people, including Black students who were admitted there on an equal basis in 1833.

In 1835, Finney arrived at Oberlin, which likewise began admitting Blacks.  In the same year Oberlin also enrolled Delazon Smith.  The latter might have been a mistake.

Smith observed at close hand the school's vaunted academic and financial-assistance programs, and in 1837 he exposed their shortcomings in his pamphlet Oberlin Unmasked.

.

 

Course of Study, and Manual Labor.

Whenever a man boasts of his righteousness, if we watch him closely we find he is not much above others in wisdom and virtue.  In fact, all his clamor may be but a cloak to conceal the vices he wishes to practice.

For four years now, through the length and breadth of the middle and Eastern states, the founders and agents of this Institution have proclaimed the glorious plan of Oberlin Education.

They have represented all other Institutions as sending forth deadly streams to corrupt everything good and virtuous in the land.  Says President Asa Mahan, “Let a young man enter one of these other Institutions with a deep tone of piety, and if he does not come out an Infidel he will be a drone in the Church and a barren Christian.”

But in Oberlin they claim to have the keys of knowledge!  They claim to be right, and all others wrong.

To see how near this boasting comes to the truth, let facts answer for a candid public.

 

Areas of Instruction

The Institution from its first existence up to the President's arrival (a period of nearly two years) was without any systematic course of study.  Students adopted such studies as suited their fancies best. 

Before the President's arrival, Latin occupied quite a conspicuous place.  But he commenced a warfare against the Classics, giving the students to understand that they had better burn their Latin books than study them, especially their Virgils.

If I am correctly informed by the boasts of some half dozen professedly pious young men, students were so incited by his remarks that one dark evening they took their Virgils and other Latin works in front of the President's house, pressed backward the lids of their books, and applied their lamps to the opening leaves.

With fiendish exultation they ran about with them, tossing them upward and downward with expressions of extreme delight.

The President stood in his door looking on, sanctioning the deed by his presence.  Grinning a ghastly smile, he cried out, “The Classics never gave so much light before!”

The friends of Oberlin who feel ashamed of such folly have since claimed that only one person burned only one book, and he was severely rebuked.  But Mr. Seth Hardin Waldo, the Professor of Languages, immediately resigned and left the President “alone in his glory.”  The present catalogue embraces only three or four Latin authors of minor importance.  These are included, I am inclined to believe, lest Oberlin should be too dissimilar from other Institutions to be considered worthy of patronage.

The course of study as revised in the fall of 1836 is supposed to be satisfactory and immutable.  As it is professedly the main object of this Institution to educate young men for ministers of the New Presbyterian order, perhaps no one could find fault, provided the course of study was strictly adhered to — but this is far otherwise.

Law and Political Economy are trumpeted forth as prominent studies, apparently with no other object than to gain notoriety.

Law forms no part of study here as yet.  It is very possible, however, that it may be introduced to promote Professor Finney's views of the government of the Deity.

And what of the science of government by men?  I have every reason to believe that the study of Political Economy will be as scarce in Oberlin as provisions are to its inhabitants.

Moreover, I believe no Institution in the land affords so few advantages for the study of literature and the sciences as Oberlin.

Belles-Lettres finds no lodgement here, notwithstanding the great talk about it in the enumeration of professorships year after year.

On the arrival last summer of Mr. Buchanan, a talented Kentuckian, as Professor of Mathematics, anticipations concerning this professorship were thought about to be realized.  But because he did not indoctrinate his students on Moral Reform, Abolitionism, et cetera, and did not permit his time for recitations to be taken up in religious exercises, he was treated with marked indifference and abuse.  Mr. Buchanan resigned his commission and returned to a land more congenial to his character.

 

Pedagogical Shortcomings

This Institution pretends to possess superior advantages for giving indigent young men a liberal education. But the College Department is totally subservient to the study of theology.  The course is so filled up with Biblical and theological studies, there is but little of consequence left. 

The time of recitation often has to give place to other things.  For days together, recitations have been suspended on account of labor.  Very often, on the motion of some hare-brained individual who thinks himself visited by some special agent, all operations have been suspended for a “season of prayer.”  Sometimes the “season” continues for days, praying the Lord to assist them in their studies and give them knowledge.  That knowledge lies within their grasp and they might avail themselves of it, would they but use the appropriate means.

In Oberlin, there is but little time for real study.  To gain more study time, it might be supposed that an individual could neglect the numerous associations — the societies of Abolition, Moral Reform, et cetera, et cetera, together with a thousand and one religious ones.  He could neglect them, but only at the sacrifice of his reputation.  An individual who does not go heart and hand into all the measures of Oberlin is not desired to remain in the place.

Students have been allowed to enter the Collegiate classes without a knowledge of the studies belonging to the Preparatory Department.  If they consider themselves too old or are too self-conceited in their already acquired abilities to go through a regular course, a “cross-cut” or “shorter course” is available.

Students in the Preparatory and Freshman classes derive very little knowledge from their teachers.  This is because theological students, too pious or proud or lazy to perform manual labor, are set over them as instructors.  These instructors often know less than those whom they so ceremoniously pretend to teach.

What effect such measures will have towards filling the ministry with illiterate men — to prevent which, Oberlin was professedly established — I leave to the decision of the public.

 

Poor Retention Rate

The catalogues and annual reports of the institution are mere hypocritical representations of its prosperity.  There has been a great influx and reflux of students.  Many individuals have entered the institution, but it has often been but for one day.  The catalogue of 1836 includes 313 students, but about one half of those who were reputed to be students in the catalogue of 1835 are not to be found in that of 1836.

So many young men come to Oberlin under false impressions and are then constrained to leave. True, some remain — either because of the compulsion of pious friends, or because they cannot afford to leave.  If they do resolve to quit the place, they must summon up the courage of an Alexander, so great will be their battle with mud, water, and corduroy bridges before they can get out.

Thus it has been since the first establishment of the college. Young men, after having witnessed what manner of persons Oberlinians are, have preferred to seek other institutions.

 

Little Work to be Had

The Manual Labor Department deserves special notice, as it is held forth as one of the prominent features of the Institution.  The professed objects in connecting manual labor with mental discipline were to afford the indigent the opportunity of education and to give educated men strong physical constitutions.  The labor should not be too fatiguing or absorb too much of the attention of the mind.

But nearly all the labor since this Institution was first established has been chopping, logging, and burning brush, ankle-deep in mud and water for a great portion of the year!  Once cleared, the land is only adapted to grazing.  In most seasons this farming labor is so unprofitable and laborious that few students work at all.

The Manual Labor Department has tried to make silk by cultivating mulberries, but more than half the shrubs are dead because of the poor soil.

There is no water power, so no manufacturing can be carried out.

Some students have a knowledge of architecture, but now that Tappan Hall has been erected and construction in the Colony is abating, they will soon be obliged to plod in the mud with the others.

And even this cannot be done to any very considerable extent, for the Institute farm has been so far reduced by selling it off to colonists (at $1.50 to $2.00 per acre) that the farm is now unable to supply one half of the applicants with labor.  There is not much hope that it can be enlarged, because the Institute cannot buy back the land for less than $25.00 per acre.

Thus we find that this boasted “glorious prominent feature” of the Institution is but a magnet to draw young men here.  Reports have been sung loud and long, but it is all song, all report, and no reality.

 

Continue to “Board and Mode of Living.”

TBT

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